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Amy Cutler / Runa Islam / Ruth Claxton
at SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Review by Kathryn M Davis

Three shows feature works that are produced at a high level of craft and intent, but end up speaking far more to themselves than to the excluded visitor.

The three solo shows curated by former director/curator Laura Steward have much in common, so much, in fact, that it only makes sense to review them together. The artists use the distinctly separate mediums of painting, film, and installation, each with extremely high degrees of craftsmanship, to come to the same unrewarding conclusion: Seeing is not believing. With the exception of Amy Cutler’s gouaches on paper, seeing is not even willing to suspend disbelief for a moment.

Cutler’s intricately detailed gouaches are frankly exquisite. With their fine and fantastic details, they lure the viewer into seeking a narrative that turns out to be unavailable. Cutler’s subjects perform odd, intricate tasks — hefting a mountain goat, mending tigers\' ragged fur, canoeing through a diaphanous rain of arrows. The litany of strangeness is jarring enough, but the women’s level of detachment from their duties is almost nightmarish, as if they are the Red Cross from some planet of perfected neutrality. It is natural to fashion stories from details, but the impassive women who populate these drawings keep us at arm’s length, preventing emotional investment. The gallery is packed with Cutler’s superbly crafted work, but the experience of apprehending it is overwhelming to the point of futility.To become absorbed by Cutler’s meticulous paintings should be a joy; more than two dozen of them are disturbing to contemplate. This could have been engaging were it not in company with the other artists’ works. In that context, Cutler’s paintings, wittingly or not, confound clarity.

Runa Islam’s films also suggest a narrative that never resolves. In “How Far to Faro,” Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle is evoked by a handsome young man, dressed all in black, depicted on the crisply bright-red hull of a ship at sea. He disappears within seconds, however, and other images are projected randomly on a triptych screen. The message is all too apparent: Images do not, and in fact cannot tell the truth; they are as helpless as discursive language in conveying anything absolute. The gaze and its purpose are deflected as if Islam’s medium is not film but Teflon.

Ruth Claxton’s site-specific installation, “Synthetic Worlds,” is composed of various sizes of mirrored discs rimmed in steel, reminiscent of sleekly Mod drum sets, and inhabited by figurines that are a kitschy blend of Watteau and Hummel. The cascading effect of the discs reads as upper-class Mexican interior decoration from the ’80s. All of the little ceramic figures’ faces are obstructed by brilliantine glass balls, globules and ribbons. Modernism’s self-consciousness is nearly unbearable here, with the installation’s deliberately retro forms and slick, gauche figurines. Claxton, of the three, is the worst offender when it comes to stating the obvious, although Islam places a close second: If, in Duchampian terms, the viewer completes the work of art; now in a post-Post world, art is subsumed within the act of looking at itself. The viewer becomes superfluous.  

Seeing, for all three of these artists, is an act of intellect, and therefore, can be gauged by a visual cleverness that has nothing to do with relational aesthetics that are so significant to the works of generations of 20th-century artists from Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Louise Bourgeois, and Bruce Nauman, for example. In other words, fellow viewer, your access has been denied. Cutler, Islam, and Claxton present art that knows and revels in its own artifice. This knowing lends a bombastic aspect to the exhibition trilogy. We could do with a more tentative hand and much less precociousness.

An art show that allows its viewers to exit the galleries with the sense of excitement permitted by slow discovery is an art show that doesn’t attempt to present all the answers without any of the questions. Regrettably, these exhibitions function collectively like a group of idiot-savants who’ve developed their own babble-speak: It is remarkable, even beautiful, but ultimately it is a language that cannot be shared or even translated. Language here is a semiotic system that serves to unite its speakers by shutting out the rest of the world. Unfortunately, only three people speak this language, and each is confined to her own dialect. Don’t even dream of eavesdropping, stranger. Just move along.

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